03/06/2012 02:49 pm ET Updated May 06, 2012

Winning the Drug War in Our Schools

The war on drugs has not been won yet. Walk into any urban, suburban or rural environment and you would probably be amazed at how easy it is to purchase illicit drugs. More than one half of American students will try an illicit drug at least once by the time they graduate from high school. The use of prescription drugs and inhalants are on the rise, and while marijuana holds first place in illicit drug use, prescription drugs and inhalants come in second.

Students are witness to a society where pills are used to fix everything from killing pain to staying awake. It should not be surprising that students are beginning to use these substances to fix or alter their emotional states as well. Inhalants such as glue, markers, and paint are also commonly used and very easy to obtain. Alcohol and cigarettes are prevalent and have been socially acceptable in American society for generations. For this reason, it is very hard to avoid them and even harder to keep children away from them. Many children see their parents use them, even if it is only in a social context. Once they reach middle school, it is only natural that they want to try these substances themselves, especially when peer pressure is a factor.

Students are also reporting they are able to acquire or buy prescription narcotics from a friend or a relative. Students also easily access alcohol as well. A small but disturbing number of students are able to access alcohol at school. This circumstance is more prevalent among males than females, among senior high school students, and among students who are performing poorly in school. Any effort to address substance abuse among youth must include an awareness of how and where students access drugs and alcohol.

Why is substance abuse such a problem among teenagers? In short, no one really knows. Possible reasons why children begin using drugs include stress due to family instability, being the victim of bullying or abuse, the obsession of our culture to succeed, and various other pressures that youth of today feel. Substance abuse among youth and teens is exacerbated in situations where other family members (e.g., parents, siblings) are also using drugs.

A particularly dangerous mix is substance abuse and teen pregnancy. Fetal alcohol syndrome occurs in babies whose mothers abuse alcohol during their pregnancy and "crack babies" are those babies are born to mothers who use crack cocaine during pregnancy. The effects of these drugs on the fetus leave these children with lifelong problems that can severely affect their academic performance.

Schools have been trying for decades to curb or stop the use of drugs in schools. Programs that have been used include Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.), which is a program that helps youth understand the facts about drugs and deal with peer pressure related to drug use. This program is funded by local police departments and is widely used, but it, along with the "Just Say No" message, has simply not worked.

Another program that falls into the failure category is the U.S. Department of Education's Safe and Drug-Free Schools program, which is a part of the No Child Left Behind Act. While plenty of money is spent with this program, there is no accountability as to how it is being spent. In fact, there is no reputable track record to justify the existence of the program. Given the questionable value of many large programs, many schools have opted to develop their own programs, curricula and policies to stop substance abuse.

How can teachers recognize students who are substance abusers? Students who are abusing drugs tend to exhibit a drop in attendance and academic performance, a deteriorating physical appearance, secretive or suspicious behavior, behavioral problems, a change in personality and or the presence of mood swings, etc. When a teacher suspects that a student is abusing drugs, the first step is to meet with the school counselor, who can tell you how to handle all aspects of the situation. When dealing with a student in this situation, teachers must be consistent in what they say and do. Ideally, the school will have very clear policies on how to handle the situation.